Yes, we grow bananas — in San Diego County, of all places — and I’ve seen them. We also grow a lot of other things that might surprise you. Just ask the “plant nuts.”
That’s what Jim Neitzel calls them, and he should know. Neitzel, whose decades-long passion has been rare fruit, is considered by many to be the dean of San Diego County rare-fruit growers.
As the morning rolls on, the strange fruits get stranger.
On April Fool’s Day, Neitzel, along with fellow enthusiast Ben Kotnik, members of the San Diego chapter of the California Rare Fruit Growers, escorted me on a day-long tour of county properties where edible incongruity is the order of the day.
The first stop: Aaron St. John’s place in Rancho Peñasquitos, where my hosts point to a brace of coffee bushes in the front yard. “You can eat the red coffee berry; there’s more caffeine in the berry than in the bean,” I am told. Roughly the size of a good-size pearl, it’s mildly sweet when I bite into it. Inside is an off-white seed that will be the coffee bean, now embryonic, I guess. It looks like a tooth that fell out of my daughter’s mouth when she was small.
Jim Neitzel: "The ‘Keitt’ is named after some dude, who, for some reason, didn’t know how to spell his own name."
Image by Howie Rosen
Birds chirp, wind chimes sound in the breeze: the enclosed front yard sounds and feels like a botanic garden, and I’m already envious. There’s a young Hachiya persimmon, tropical blackberries, a pomegranate tree, as well as stone fruit trees, Santa Rosa plum and Golden Apricot.
Heading toward the back yard, I take note of guavas — ‘strawberry’ and ‘red’ types — and a pomelo (antecedent of the grapefruit) in hyper-fragrant blossom. A few feet away, low pots hold young blueberries, a little blue coming into the green. Oregon, Washington, Minnesota, or Maine — sure — but San Diego? Can these be any good? Though still immature, they are. ‘Southern high bush’ and ‘rabbit eye’ cultivars, they prosper in the local balm, as do the royal ‘Lee’ and ‘Mini Lee’ cherries, two new, truly low-chill cherries. They’re spindly trees, only six feet tall, but the half-ripe fruit is already sweet and pleasant. Most folks would judge these cherries at least as good as the typical commercially available Bings.
Leo Manuel points to a mango tree, “This one performs poorly in San Diego, but it does well in Florida."
Image by Howie Rosen
I say, “It’s not coffee yet.”
Blueberries and cherries — and apples, apricots, pears, plums, and peaches — aren’t rare in the general sense, but do fit under the rubric of rarity set up by the California Rare Fruit Growers. I asked Tom Del Hotal, president of the 190-member San Diego chapter: “How do you define ‘rare’?”
A fruit that aspires to sanctioned rarity can make it into the club via any one of five avenues.
Cutting jackfruit at the California Rare Fruit Growers club meeting in Balboa Park
Image by Howie Rosen
First up are fruits not ordinarily grown in San Diego. The jaboticaba, rare in San Diego County but commonplace in Brazil, is an example. Del Hotal says, “The jaboticaba is quite an extraordinary fruit. It looks like a large black grape and grows right on the trunk of the tree. The flesh melts in your mouth, and it has a sweet, marvelous, exotic flavor. The skin is rather thick. Some people prefer not to eat it, although I do.”
Jack Skeels offers me a ‘golden nugget’ tangerine. It’s citrus nirvana. Maybe it’s the new hybrid at work or the right-off-the-tree thing, but it vies for supremacy with the ‘Fujimoto’ orange in my fruit hall of fame.
Image by Howie Rosen
I asked him whether, given Brazil’s predominantly tropical climate, which is characterized by year-round heat and humidity, the fruit requires significant adaptation to thrive in San Diego. “No, not at all. That’s a common misconception.”
A second category is composed of varieties that have fallen out of favor, e.g., heirloom apples displaced by newer types (such as Fujis) with more uniformity and a longer shelf life.
Then there are the unusual-properties sorts, including “Miracle Fruit”: “It fools your taste buds; for about an hour after you eat it, anything sour you eat tastes sweet.”
Ben Kotnik and his mangos
The next group is made up of new species. Del Hotal says: “We just brought in a new fruit from China called ‘yang ming’ — first time in the country. A couple of our members had it shipped from China. It’s the size of a golf ball, tart-sweet, soft, and juicy, with seeds throughout, used in jams, jellies, and drinks. It’s prized in China but practically unknown here.”
Ben Kotnik and his peaches
Finally, we come to perhaps the widest-ranging rarities — fruit not grown here commercially. Some are stone fruits commonplace in other regions, such as peaches, along with their new, portmanteau hybrids: apriums, plumcots, pluots, nectaplums, peachcottams, and cherryplums. (Others are what Del Hotal labels sub-tropical, e.g., dragon fruit, guavas, mangoes, and pineapples.)
Ben Kotnik and his cherimoyas
Then there’s the cherished cherimoya.
To the unschooled, “cherimoya” suggests the tropics, but according to Kotnik, that’s not the case. Native to the western slopes of the Andes, they thrive in Spain, New Zealand, some Asian locales — and in Southern California, notably San Diego and Santa Barbara. Turns out that, while they can’t tolerate much frost they do need to “chill out”; that is, spend some nights at 33–45 degrees.
Ben Kotnik and his figs
Kotnik tells me, “When I introduce people to the cherimoya for the first time, they tend to taste it and say, ‘It’s good, a little different.’ It’s the fifth one that sort of gets you hooked on it. If you’ve tried it once or twice, try it about five times, and you’ll know whether it’s for you or not.”
Ben Kotnik and his sapote
Is the cherimoya “right for me?” Instead of asking my doctor, I drop in one night on the California Rare Fruit Growers’ “cherimoya extravaganza” at Balboa Park. After a circuitous route — past dark, the place is devoid of tourists and a little spooky — I find Room 101, the Majorca, where growers and fans of rare fruit, as well as the simply curious, are gathered to celebrate the cherimoya. In a kitchen that adjoins the meeting room, stalwarts peel, pit, and slice cherimoyas, which range in size from a Hass avocado to a standard pineapple. Bright green, slightly conical, and covered with armor-like rows of panels, the cherimoya looks a little like an artichoke, or maybe a hand grenade. As the fruit fête commences, first-time guests are invited to stand up and introduce themselves.
“Hi, my name is Larry. I’m a plumber from Encinitas, and I have about 35 fruit trees crammed into a small space.”
Cathy from Cardiff says, “I just bought a house. In the yard there’s a tree with ‘strange fruits.’”
Del Hotal shoots back, “They would be right at home with the rest of us strange fruit here.”
What follows is a rather technical (to the layman, at least) presentation on grafting, cloning, pollination, and cultivars, given by a dedicated cadre of hard-core aficionados. An audience member asks, “Did you say hand-pollinating?” The veteran seated next to me whispers earnestly, “Very important.” Right on cue, a hand-pollination video with cheesy music starts. The video host demonstrates the process, showing how to identify male flowers, collect pollen, and place it on the stigma. “Look for the powdery stuff, use it the same hour, and go in only once. If you go in and out multiple times, you’ll get a fruit with a lot of seeds.”
The argot is leavened a bit by the reminiscences of Nino Cupaiuolo, former president of the California Cherimoya Association. Cupaiuolo, a trim, dapper man in his 70s, seems the archetypal gentleman farmer. “I tasted a cherimoya one time. I saw it in the market; I had no idea what it was. I bought it, I liked it, I planted it. And that was the beginning of my love relationship with cherimoyas. That seed — and this is the luck of the beginner — turned out to be one of the varieties that you’ll taste tonight, the ‘fortuna’. Once I found out I had a good thing, a good tree, I named it ‘fortuna’. Most people that come up with new varieties that they like, they name them after their wives. My wife is not named Fortuna.”
Underscoring the capricious nature of the fruit known to many as the ‘custard apple’, Cupaiuolo cautions, “Cherimoyas are like shooting at a moving target: what they do one year will not happen the next year — you have to be prepared for surprises. Everything you’ve heard so far tonight is true and correct, but we don’t know if it will be true and correct next year.”
Strongest draw of the night is the tasting, and Del Hotal cautions us not to rush the tables. A dozen types of cherimoyas have been cut up and placed on paper plates, next to cups into which samplers are encouraged to save the seeds. My first cherimoya is the ‘fornilla #3’, spritely with a citrus tang, then the ‘Whaley’, sweet with yeasty/winey undertones. The ‘Pierce’ displays the classic bubblegum flavor, as does the less intense ‘ox heart’. ‘The Booth’, on the other hand, gives off a sulfurous note, while the atemoya (a hybrid of a cherimoya and a sugar apple) is rubbery and bitter — altogether too funky for my tastes. More palatable are the pear-like flavors of the ‘Needham’ and the nice sweet-tart balance of the ‘fortuna’, which is redolent of mango.
Back on the tour, our next stop, also in Rancho Peñasquitos, is at Leo Manuel’s house. Manuel, mainly a mango maven, tends to 30–40 varieties of mango, which are found primarily in India, Thailand, and Central America. Manuel, a self-effacing man who looks to be about 70, greets us in his front yard. He points to a tree and says, “This one performs poorly in San Diego, but it does well in Florida. Some are more cold tolerant than others.” He shows us another specimen, this from the Todos Santos region of Mexico; five years old, it was started, like all of his mango plantings, from seed from store-bought mangos or from fellow mango-ites. In full bloom, the flowers aren’t much to look at, but from late summer until around December, it will bear 1 ½ lb. fruits. Next to it is a baby mango, Indian variety.
Neitzel — whose prowess in rare-fruit cultivation (and knowledge of its origins) has led Kotnik to dub him El Capitán — chimes in with a tidbit about Manuel’s leading cultivar, the ‘Keitt’. “It’s named after some dude, who, for some reason, didn’t know how to spell his own name.” He goes on. “There’s a guy named Captain Buckalew who, last century, did a lot of work experimenting about a mile inland of Quail Gardens; he was trying to find the mango that would perform in that coastal area. He came to the conclusion that it’s best to get early-ripening cultivars that can really capitalize on the summer months for their growth — cranking out the starches, cranking out the fruit — so he developed a [faster mango], the ‘early gold’.”
The warm microclimate of his back yard is where Manuel’s mangos reach their hefty, fragrant glory. I accidentally dislodge a fruit from a tree no taller than my shoulders. Purplish with a pastel tinge, it’s egg-shaped with splashes of yellow; it weighs a couple of pounds. Manuel says he doesn’t know how many trees he has — maybe 40 — with over two dozen varieties. In contrast to some rare-fruit growers, he takes an easygoing, experiential approach. No worries, he says. The mango isn’t finicky, and copes quite well with a variety of soils, including poorly drained clay soils. He notes, “They can get big, but not in San Diego’s climate. I try to keep them small, so I can pick the fruit.”
Manuel offers me a sample of the ‘Leo #4’, which looks just like the typical Asian variety at the supermarket, with variegated green and red. It has the classic fragrance on the outside, plus sticky sap. Seems like a full-on tropical mango right here in San Diego. Tipping the scale at about three pounds, its flesh is yellow-orange, slightly crunchy, and intensely sweet. If you told me it was from Thailand or India, I’d believe it. I also taste a ‘Keitt’, which is similar in color but very firm, as if unripe. Turns out it’s superb. Not fibrous at all, it slices easily with a knife. The flavor is mild, not too acidic; the flesh is a comely yellow-gold.
What sort of folks immerse themselves in the world of rare fruit?
According to Neitzel, “Quite a few of the club members seem to be well educated.”
I ask Kotnik, “Are rare-fruit growers a bunch of old hippies?”
“You really can’t peg a political persuasion on it,” he says. “We’re concerned about the environment, sure. But plenty of people will still use a synthetic chemical fertilizer or sprays. It depends on who you talk to. Del Hotal is also a licensed pesticide applicator — he’s a nurseryman. Speaking for myself, I’m not diametrically opposed to using anything that’s synthetic, but I prefer not to.”
(Alice Snow, another rare-fruit grower, says, “Some members would put DDT on your head if they could get fruit out of it.”)
Jon Verdick, who operates Encanto Farms, a nursery in the South Bay, says that local rare-fruit enthusiasts are like “the rest of society, everything from doctors and lawyers, straight-laced people to people who would probably be classified as cranks and weirdos.”
Are the California Rare Fruit Growers the most fanatical growers?
“Not necessarily,” Verdick says. “I think if you went to the rose society, the dahlia society, you’d find a lot more hard-core people that are really Nazis about what they’re doing.”
Verdick specializes in two fruits, figs and bananas. His fig collection numbers a staggering 800 varieties, with 1200 total trees; his goal is two of each. It includes such rarities as the ‘violette de Bordeaux’, a small fig with dark purple flesh, the ‘black Madeira’, and the ‘panache’, which is adorned with yellow and green stripes. Verdick notes that there is almost no commercial production of figs in San Diego County, and that the fresh figs in local stores — common varieties are ‘brown turkey’, ‘kadota’, and mission — come from the San Joaquin Valley. Figs are a good fit here. “If you can grow a citrus tree, you can grow a fig tree without any problem. There are trees in Point Loma just blocks from the water [a tougher climate] to the far side of El Cajon.”
Intermingled with the figs, sharing the 1/5th-acre patch, are bananas — around 100 cultivars. I challenge Verdick, “Can the average person really grow bananas in San Diego?”
He answers with a measured affirmative. “You do have to actually take care of the plant. They are a little water- and fertilizer-heavy compared to a lot of other things. [But] if you drive around in places like Point Loma, Loma Portal, you’ll see patches of bananas that have been growing for years. Most of them haven’t been properly cared for — so they’ll grow a lot of plant, but they seldom fruit — because people don’t put the investment into them, the inputs of water or fertilizer.”
He does admit that “a fair number of varieties, including the ubiquitous grocery-staple, the ‘Cavendish’, would do better in a less-cold climate. Once you get a lot of temps below 50 at night, they lose vigor.” When I queried Verdick about growing a conventional banana here, he sounded a slight note of contempt for so pedestrian an endeavor: “Frankly, if that’s all you’re looking for, I wouldn’t go to the trouble to grow it; you can get those a lot cheaper in the store.” He’s a staunch supporter of obscure cultivars. “If you’re growing a ‘misi luki’, or Honduran varieties like the ‘Goldfinger’, it’s clearly a banana but it’s a different taste and a far better taste.” The ‘misi luki’ is about half the size of a ‘Cavendish’ but looks same both outside and inside.
If bananas seem outlandish in San Diego, macadamia nuts may seem odder still; most folks outside of Hawaii view them as a rare, costly treat. But Kotnik says that the trees, which can top out at 30–40 feet or more, are “all over the place” in San Diego.
Neitzel, who numbers the macadamia among his favorites, claims that San Diego’s climate is perfect for the iconic Hawaiian crop. “Macadamia is very drought-tolerant. It’s native to Australia, where it’s known as the Queensland Nut. I bought my Encanto property in 1970, and the first thing I did, I got all excited about macadamia nuts. I planted too many, ten different cultivars.” Although Neitzel is recognized as a San Diego macadamia expert, he is just as well known for his work with other fruits, including the ‘Big Jim’ loquat and the ‘el sabor’ and ‘big sister’ cherimoyas, three cultivars he’s created.
Unlike Neitzel, Kotnik, 34, is a relative newcomer (circa 2008) to the obsession. “I’m an expert learner. I got into soils first. I’d bought a house and had a neighbor who said, ‘I water it, I want to eat it.’”
Like many of the rare-fruit growers I’ve met, Kotnik has plantings up and down the rare-fruit continuum, including cherimoyas — such as a ‘White’ cultivar to which he’s grafted about eight other varieties; mangos (such as the small yellow ‘Ataulfo’ variety); and dozens more. Young plants are in every corner of the back yard: ‘Arava’ sweet melon — a honeydew/cantaloupe cross; coffee bushes; obscure apple rootstocks; and papaya seedlings, of which, he says, “I’m about five years from harvesting quite a bit of bounty.”
When I mention that I’m a pepper-head, he shows me tepin pepper plants from seeds. Much hotter than a jalapeño, and somewhat hotter than a serrano (but not as hot as a habanero), they look like tiny bell peppers, red now before drying. I take some home in a bag and use them on all kinds of things; I find them pleasantly potent. For a contrast, Kotnik offers up ‘blueberry’, the misty cultivar. It’s subtly sweet, with lavender-like flavor. I wouldn’t have thought you could grow a blueberry this good in San Diego.
When I walk over to Kotnik’s mini–banana plantation, the first things I notice are the showy purple flowers, maybe seven inches long by five inches wide, resembling artichoke or eggplant. There are ten trees — actually five pairs consisting of a main tree and a satellite or sidekick. Kotnik, in his casually pedagogical manner, explains: “You start out with one tree. The living part of the plant is called the corum, and it’s underground. After a while, it sends up companions called pups.” The immature bananas, 15–20 to a hand (bunch), are three or four inches long and one inch in diameter. They look like okra. Kotnik says they’re blue ‘Javas’. When ripe, they’ll be shorter and stubbier than a ‘Cavendish’, but their flesh will be a little whiter, softer, and sweeter.
Here’s a ‘bonita’ peach tree, about eight feet high and covered with pink flowers. The immature peaches are fuzzy, the size of large pussy willows, but already have the classic peach colors. When I ask Kotnik how his homegrown peaches will stack up against store-bought stuff, he’s emphatic: “They’re juicier and sweeter — there’s not really a comparison. It’s the difference between having a top-shelf liquor and well liquor.”
When the talk comes to rarity, Kotnik shows me a couple of hard-to-get items, including a “fig with no name,” known only as ‘#143-36 from UC Davis’. With a hint of gloating, he says, “You couldn’t find it in a nursery. You’d have to know someone. I also have some true dwarf citrus, which is quite rare — ‘flying dragon’ — the only true dwarfing citrus rootstock. I’m growing a ‘trevita’ sweet orange on it. I’ve never tasted it.”
As I delve further into the realm of rarity, Kotnik says, “Here’s a great example of a rare plant, a new type of olive, the ‘Thassos’. You can eat it raw, right off the tree. I’m not sure even if it’s being grown here, and I’ve never tasted it. There are rumors about plans to introduce it into local community gardens, which I can neither confirm nor deny.”
The apocryphal ‘Thassos’ aside, I asked many rare-fruit fiends: “Are there some fruits that you simply can’t grow here?”
They cite dates, which are employed extensively as landscape trees but require intense heat (e.g., Anza Borrego–style) to bear fruit. They also mention pistachios. Certain true tropicals like cacao, durian, mangosteen, and soursop are out of bounds in San Diego, as are jackfruit and coconut palms. As to the latter, however, Kotnik opines, “The average person can’t grow them.”
The search for rare fruit takes me to corners of San Diego I’ve never seen, including a surprisingly upscale enclave at the top of a steep hill, offering a panoramic view of El Cajon Valley. But I’m not here for the view — I’m here to check out Paul Fisher’s riotous profusion of rare fruit. Fisher, who lives on a hill with a flock of turkeys and a couple of parrots, has indeed grown coconut palms as well as jackfruit. His coconut trees, after gritting it out for four years, bit the dust due to a severe (for Southern California) winter before they could bear fruit. However, Fisher’s jackfruit tree, though hardly an aesthetic standout at a spindly 18 feet or so, is hanging tough. While I peer at the notorious denizen of the jungle, Kotnik quips, “Some people say they know about jackfruit — but they don’t know jack about jackfruit.”
Neitzel, however, does. “The fruit tastes like very flavorsome bubblegum. You’re eating the areole around the seed, so it can be a bit chewy. But when it’s ripe, it’s a fantastic fruit.” Neitzel says that this Malaysian import, related to breadfruit, is the world’s largest fruit, routinely tipping the scales at over 60 pounds — ten pounds of it edible. (Fisher’s has yielded a 40-pounder.) At this stage, the baby jackfruit looks porcupinish; it will be ready in the fall. Jackfruit hates frost and wind; here, on the side of Fisher’s garage, a micro-microclimate has proven a copacetic southern exposure, as well as nearby trees that act as a windbreak. Fisher says, “I’m lucky to be above frost line at 875 feet. I’ve got decomposed granite for fast-draining soil, and the onshore breeze keeps it mild year-round.”
Fisher’s compound has a peculiar, almost haunting air about it. Hundreds of 30-gallon containers of seedlings and older plants occupy the driveway, blocking a garage door behind which sits a dusty Corvette. Attempting to make sense of the bewildering display of plant life, I ask Fisher how it all came about.
By trade a gym owner, Fisher says he moved to the property in 1988 and started planting in 1989. “I’ve tried everything you can possibly buy that’s ever been imported. I have over 600 varieties, one of the largest collections anywhere. Of the 600, around 120 are citrus, including the über-rare ‘red Valencia’. I’m one of the few to have it. It kind of looks like a blood orange.” He adds, “Once I get into something…” With that said, Fisher shows me around.
The abundance overwhelms me. There’s ‘Tahitian pumelo’; ‘spicy nectaplum’ — which is said to taste like white nectarine, but has dark purple flesh; ‘chicle sapote’ (chewing gum can be made from the sap); morris nigra (black mulberry); a ‘Baron’ flowering peach with spectacular red blossoms; banana trees; ‘Uma’ guava from India; and a longan tree, a lychee-like berry native to south and southeast Asia.
Not every fruit’s in season, but in the case of the pineapple guava — feijoa — the flowers, apparently used in salads now and then, fill in admirably. The petals are delicate, with the coloration of a cowrie shell. As for the flavor, I’m not sure how to characterize it. Subtle, very pleasant, the feijoa flower is mildly redolent — this may sound strange — of the best-smelling urinal cake you’ve ever encountered. But don’t let that deter you: if you ever come across feijoa flowers, pluck them and eat them.
However, not everything in the world of rare fruit is a bowl of Surinam cherries. In the past five years or so, according to Fisher, the United States Department of Agriculture, in the name of blocking pests, has done its damnedest to prohibit the importation of rare fruit. “Problem we’re having now is that we can’t bring things in from Florida due to the regulations. We have one gentleman who’s been trying to get mango trees in. They’re requiring full payment six months in advance, and a full truckload costs $50,000. When they bring them in, he’s got a few days to check every single plant. If the USDA finds a single pest — which they always have — they confiscate the trees and burn them.” Fisher maintains that the feds’ eagerness to seize plants extends even to the individual, noncommercial enthusiast. “You know what they’re doing now. If you’re on the internet, and, let’s say, you want to buy a plant from India, you can buy the seeds, but the feds come to your door and throw you in jail. This is serious stuff now. It’s really put a kibosh on rare fruit. Those of us who got in before the big hassle, we’re grafting trees, we’re able to continue, but I can’t buy new trees to sell.”
As his parrot squawks in the background, he shows me still more: a Fukushu kumquat; a wax jambu (a bell-shaped fruit from Thailand); and a Kei Apple from Africa, which he says has an acid-sweet, round yellow fruit. Here’s an Australian Finger Lime. “That’s pretty rare. You could use it to simulate roe on a piece of sushi; if you want that limey flavor, it would be perfect.” I’m not sure how to describe it, but Kotnik’s girlfriend, who is accompanying us, proclaims the taste “soapy.” It looks like no lime I’ve ever seen.
Fisher holds court: “This is unusual — a ‘limequat’ — a cross between a kumquat and a lime. The loquat portion came originally from a ‘Big Jim’ loquat seedling.” Pointing to a cultivar named ‘valentine’, he says, “It’s considered a pumelo, but it’s a hybrid of pumelo, mandarin, and blood orange. It’s a new and unusual variety from UC Riverside. They have a collection of over 800 kinds of citrus. We take field trips there as a club. The ‘valentine’ is the one we wanted for eight years. We kept saying, ‘Release this, release this, release this!’”
Before we leave, Fisher laments the fruit thieves who’ve plagued him. “They’re Middle Easterners. Grandma, mom, dad, and their sons get in their new car, park, and come up here with bags. They break branches off and destroy the tree — whatever’s there. These women run up my hill with armfuls of fruit that’s two months away from being ripe, and they pick the tree clean. It’s really irritating. You’re just waiting for the fruit. They say, “In our country, we all share.’ Don’t tell me that — in your country, you get your hands cut off. I’m thinking of putting up a sign: ‘Warning! Radioactive Isotopes Being Used — Danger!’”
A few miles south of Fisher’s aerie, coffee bushes and pineapples are enjoying the Snow — Alice Snow, that is — who, along with hubby Dick, tend to these exotics in the milds of Spring Valley.
“We found the secret to getting pineapples to fruit,” Alice says. “It’s Osmocote, a chemical fertilizer, one of the first fertilizers to come in little beads for a slow release. I can get 10–12 pineapples from each primary plant. The first pineapple (about two feet high) grows straight up like a stalk, and then shoots start coming out of the side. You pop those off and plant them. I have around 20 or 25 plants.” I ask her how her home-growns compare with store-bought Hawaiian imports. “They’re sweeter because you can leave them on the plant longer.”
How did she become San Diego County’s “big” coffee producer? “I just went into the old Safeway and saw a cute little coffee plant. They have beautiful green leaves and white flowers; they were selling them as ornamentals. We have two 14-foot trees we keep topping. They grow like weeds. If you get too many of these trees, they take over. When the berries fall on the ground, you have to pick them up.” She says that the pea-sized berries, green at first, ripen in spring-summer, turning a bright red.
Snow’s process of turning the coffee “cherries” into coffee begins with soaking them to remove the red skin, followed by mashing until soft. When the actual beans emerge, she spreads them out to dry in the sun or in a dehydrator; she then winnows the beans by putting them in a wheat-grinder to remove a thin membrane, which blows away under the breeze of a fan. Almost done, she roasts the beans, then smokes them in a heavy skillet on a small stove outside. What does it taste like? “It tastes like coffee.”
At Jack Skeels’ place in Casa de Oro, I met with some hermaphrodites — of the banana variety, that is. Mature trees, 25 feet tall. There are no bananas to taste at the moment, but Jack, another longtime rare-fruit grower, offers me a ‘golden nugget’ tangerine. It’s citrus nirvana. Maybe it’s the new hybrid at work or the right-off-the-tree thing, but it vies for supremacy with the ‘Fujimoto’ orange in my fruit hall of fame.
There’s a bosky, backwoods feel here, peaceful if a bit ramshackle — sheds and shacks. In rapid succession, I walk by a lush Tarocco blood orange tree, a pumelo tree with pendulous fruit hanging to the ground, and an enormous 30-foot-plus loquat tree, the biggest I’ve ever seen. There’s a lot more back here — a Fuyu persimmon tree, a jujube (Chinese date) tree, and a ‘Fino de Jete’ cherimoya — with fruits ranging in size from an enlarged prostate to a shrunken heart.
Up in Encinitas, I stop by the former Quail Gardens, now the San Diego Botanic Garden. Although the subtropical fruit garden occupies only about a quarter acre of 37.5 acres, they’ve packed a lot in. Julian Duval, the director (who lives on-site), shows me around via golf cart.
First stop is a stand of bananas — varieties like the ‘dwarf red Puerto Rican’, festooned with a large, phallic purple inflorescence — banana flowers. Informing me that the banana is “the world’s largest herb,” he picks a ‘Manzano’ apple banana for me to sample. Very starchy; it seems like something you would use for cooking. Yeah, I can taste the apple notes, as well as a shot of tannin. Not recommended.
Duval notes, “The concept of ‘rare’ is a relative thing. Eighty percent of the people you talk to wouldn’t know what a cherimoya is. When I was a kid growing up near Chicago, avocados were considered rare. My grandmother called them ‘alligator pears.’”
Farther down the dirt path, I come to the citrus section. Here’s a ‘Fujimoto’ orange, which resembles a large navel orange, but with bumpy skin and less even coloration; the inside sports a slight ruby-grapefruit tinge. It could be the juiciest orange I’ve ever had: mild, sweet flavor — I could eat this all day. Next I try the tangerine-orange cross, the ‘ugli’. Mushy-fleshed, it’s exceedingly tart and sweet, an acid and sugar explosion, 180 degrees from the ‘Fujimoto’. Time to taste another obscure citrus, calamondin, a kumquat/mandarin hybrid that looks like a miniature pumpkin. Duval says, “You eat the whole thing. Peel’s sweet, the inside’s bitter.” It has a intriguing allspice aftertaste. Not bad.
As the train rumbles by, horn sounding, Duval shows me a sturdy rose apple tree, native to Southeast Asia. “It’s not actually an apple,” he says. “It has the essence of rose, but it’s crunchy like an apple. I like it cut up in salads.” Not far away is a ‘Montero’ lucuma, whose sign states, “This tree has fruit with dry texture which tastes like sweet potatoes.” June Anderson says she knows someone “who makes incredible sorbet from it.” Sorbet, you say? What about pudding? My hosts tell me that the black sapote — when ripe, the inside is almost black — tastes “just like chocolate pudding.” Others compare it to axle grease.
The dragon fruit, or pitahaya — whose juice shows up in various energy drinks — sounds more palatable. Cultivated by Mayans and Aztecs as early as 800 A.C.E., the jungle cactus, with some serious spines, sprawls here in Encinitas, snaking vinelike over a ten-foot-high arbor. Duval tells me that the fruit is vaguely lemon-shaped, with a vibrant pink exterior that, when opened, reveals purple-red flesh with a beet-like taste. But for Duval, the real allure of the dragon fruit is its spectacular flower. “It’s cream-white and the size of a dinner plate. It blooms for only one night — most cactus flowers are ephemeral. I live right over there, so I get to see them.”
It’s time to taste a few more oddities. There’s the Surinam cherry from the northern coast of South America; weird stuff — it’s got an aftertaste that reminds we of a Szechuan peppercorn. Could it be the next hyped Vitamin-C bomb? I also try the Blue Lily pilly from Australia — tart, crunchy with a seed in the center. Resembling a small lavender-to-pink grape, with a pit/seed of the same color, it has a slightly tart taste, but there isn’t much of it. Probably best appreciated by birds.
As the morning rolls on, the strange fruits get stranger. There’s a common house plant, Duval tells me — the split-leaf philodendron — that, if grown outside and allowed to get large enough, will bear a fruit with pineapple flavors. In botanical Latin, it’s the Monstera deliciosa, a vine hailing from Central America and said to be favored by pre-Columbians. “But you have to be careful,” warns Duval, “because it’s related to the dumb canem which will paralyze your larynx if you eat it, so you can’t talk. If you try it [the Monstera deliciosa], and it’s prickly to your tongue, don’t eat it.”
Pointing out a Davidson’s plum tree, Duval quips, “When people ask me what things taste like, I tell them ‘It doesn’t taste like chicken.’” The Davidson’s, reportedly savored by Aborigines, is said to be very sour. It’s no looker, that’s for sure; its purple and green curly leaves appear rotten. As for the immature, green fruits — some look like figs, others like grapes. It’s as much a “plum” as the Surinam cherry is a “cherry,” which is to say not at all.
The Ice Cream Bean Tree, or Inga, is one of the largest rare-fruit trees I saw; its fruit is certainly the most bizarre I’ve ever sampled.
Duval says, “My first experience with this tree was decades ago, down in Ecuador on the Aguarico River, a tributary of the Amazon. I was with a group of people, an eco-tourism experience. They tied up the boat we were on at night and crashed into a tree. I wondered, ‘Why are they doing that?’ The crew got out and started pulling these beans off the tree.” The fruit is hidden in ten-inch-long pods, greenish-yellow, phallic — vaguely evil. Duval warns me: “The seeds are already germinating in the inside.”
When one is sliced open for me to try, the guts of the fruit present themselves in pre-cut segments. Warily, I taste it: fuzzy, cotton-candyish in appearance, the edible portion is sweet, benign, but it’s surrounded by black seeds which have sprouts protruding from them. If you didn’t know it was edible, you probably wouldn’t try it.
Duval says, “Strange, isn’t it? Amaze your friends.”